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Academic vs Play-Based Learning for Preschoolers: What You Should Know

We live in a world that is slowly changing its approach to early childhood education, to the detriment of young children.

While the preschool years were once a time to learn through play, young children are now being pressured into early academic learning.

Play is essential for developing and growing a young body and mind. Read on to find out why.

Let’s first take a look at what formal learning looks like for a preschooler.

What is Academic Learning for Preschoolers?

The academic learning approach for preschoolers focuses on teaching cognitive skills or knowledge through routines and structure.

In this approach, for example, you would put much focus on practising letter names and sounds, numbers, colours, shapes, and sight words through memorization drills, such as the use of flashcards and other learning materials.

You would use technology and workbooks to reinforce those skills and also have children practise handwriting.

In an academic approach, you often choose storybooks to share with your children that target certain sounds of the alphabet and perhaps contain other controlled vocabulary.

Child practicing hand writing

What is a Play-Based Approach?

Play-based learning is unstructured, child-directed, and merely facilitated or guided by adults. Children are free to express themselves and learn naturally.

This hands-on play for preschoolers is process-oriented and has no set agenda, outcome or product. The joy is in the doing, not in reaching a specific outcome that an adult has specified.

Make-believe or pretend play are essential ingredients of play.

To encourage play-based learning, offer children space, materials and opportunities that incorporate all different areas, such as language, pre-reading, maths, science, pre-writing, creative arts and social studies.

In a play-based approach, a child chooses to play with other kids, on their own, or with their parents.

They should not have to worry about “making a mess” but are responsible for helping to clean up afterwards.

Screens should also be limited as they often interfere with a child’s desire to play. They are not a healthy way for children to learn and they also often prevent communication with others.

Research on Play-Based Learning

The connection between play and learning has been studied for many years.

Well-known psychologists and theorists, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) were at the forefront of much of the research on how children learn through play and how it encourages cognitive development.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an educator, doctor, and innovator in her field. She said, “Play is the work of the child.”

According to the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), more recent research shows strong connections between play and learning in many areas, including language (Toub et al. 2016), mathematics (Fisher et al. 2013), science (Schulz & Bonawitz 2007), and social-emotional development (Dore, Smith, & Lillard 2015).

A field of research called the science of learning (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2015) identifies four important aspects. Learning occurs most effectively when kids are:

  • mentally active (not passive)
  • engaged (not distracted) 
  • socially interactive (with other children or adults)
  • building connections (to real life)

It is easy to see how play fits in so well with all these areas.

The Benefits of Play-Based Learning

Play-based learning weaves its way throughout the preschool years when kids are developing so quickly. Through play, children explore their interests and curiosities, while practising the following types of skills:

Within the context of play, children actively use all their senses, while learning to take turns and share.

They engage in higher-level thinking skills through the discovery and exploration of things that interest them, and not just topics that are chosen by adults.

In self-directed play, children think for themselves instead of having an adult tell them what to think and what to do next.

Play-Based Learning Ideas

Observe what your children enjoy and use that as a jumping-off point for encouraging play-based learning activities. Think outside the box and provide them with the materials, time and positive reinforcement they need.

Check out the following examples of play-based learning in preschool for some inspiration.

Sharing Books as Play

Make a variety of books available to children, including fiction, informational, rhyming, non-rhyming, silly, and serious. Let them choose the books to share each day.

Show them how to “read the pictures” even if they cannot yet read the words.

Dramatic Play

Offer a selection of props, dolls, puppets, dress-up clothes, jewellery and shoes for kids to act out stories and fantasies.

Books and music are also important aspects of dramatic play to have at the ready.

Girls having a pretend tea party

Outdoor Play

Encourage the use of natural materials in play: acorns, twigs, leaves, water, sand and snow, used with buckets, cars/trucks, plastic tools/scoops and shovels. Keep binoculars and magnifying glasses handy.

Provide sports equipment for kicking, hitting/catching and bouncing. Make obstacle course materials available for jumping, climbing, rolling and crawling.

Kids can plant, water and grow their own garden patches of veggies or flowers.

Children could hide a toy outdoors and write/draw/tell clues of where it may be found.

Construction Play

Offer natural and recycled materials, such as wood or cardboard boxes and tubes. Kids can choose to build things like marble runs, roads and ramps.

Have child-friendly tools available.

Keep writing and drawing materials handy for planning, drawing and “writing” directions.

Large, plastic building bricks may also be used indoors or out.

Playdough Exploration

Have materials on hand for adding to the playdough and changing the texture, such as sand, rice, sawdust or small stones.

Use rolling pins and construction materials like dry pasta, pipe cleaners and craft sticks.

Build an Indoor Fort

Before doing the washing on laundry day, get children to use the sheets off the beds to make forts by draping them over the furniture.

Large cardboard boxes, such as those from appliances, make great houses/forts, as well, and can even be decorated with crayons and markers.

Kids could collect all the pillows and cushions from around the house and build a couch cubby.

Child lying on the bed under a pillow fortress.

Maths and Science through Play

Kids can use common household objects for matching, sorting and forming patterns.

They can learn the concept of money by making their own play money and playing shop (using packaged goods from the cupboard). An old computer keyboard may be used as a cash register.

Water Play, Indoors or Out

Water play is a wonderful messy play activity for little ones.

With water in containers ranging from small to large (anything from a bucket to an ocean), kids can blow bubbles, explore with food colours, experiment with floating and sinking, play around with filling/emptying/measuring, and experience what happens when water freezes or melts.

Musical Play

Have musical instruments and recorded music available for your kids on a regular basis. They can make rhythmic noises, sing, dance, make up songs, march and clap.

Children can sing their favourite nursery rhymes while producing silly fingerplays and actions.

Cooking: Real and Pretend

For pretend cooking, kids can use toy or real pots, pans and utensils to pour, stir and “cook” imaginary or child-safe ingredients, like dry rice and pasta.

In real food preparation, your children can make a snack or simple meal with child-friendly options that require no cooking.

Have writing materials handy for composing shopping lists and designing cookbooks or menus.

Mother and daughter kneading dough in the kitchen

Writing as a Part of Play

Keep papers and writing instruments like pencils, crayons, markers and chalk available at all times, to encourage building pre-writing skills.

Kids love to draw, scribble and practice “writing,” either as a form of play on its own or in conjunction with any of the other activities listed.

Creative Arts

Kids tend to focus their attention on the artistic process and the enjoyment of creating instead of being concerned about the end product looking like an adult-made sample.

Make all kinds of art materials and tools available to children: various types of paper/surfaces, paints/brushes, markers, recycled materials and tapes/glues.

Here are some ideas for process-oriented art activities.

Travel Near and Far

From a walk around the backyard or bike ride through the neighbourhood, to a trip on a plane or train, let your kids experience the world around them.

Design a map, “write” a list, listen/look for the birds, learn a word in a foreign language, draw the buildings you visit, and count how many steps up to the museum door.

With play-based learning, the sky is the limit!

Are you a preschool teacher or working in Early Childhood Education? Would you like to receive regular emails with useful tips and play-based activity ideas to try with your children? Sign up for the newsletter!

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Hanlie Willson

Saturday 24th of June 2023

Hi there SINCERE THANKFULNESS for this. I am new. And not wealthy.(pensioner for 7 years- left my job to take care of dad) So any freebee is appreciated. And I WILL , once I receive my salary, of course support you , once I have the example as a reminder.

May your free giving spirit be richly rewarded. lots of love (starring to teach soon...)

Tanja Mcilroy

Wednesday 19th of July 2023

Thank you for your kind words, Hanlie!

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